Monday, March 31, 2008

Q & A

Recently, my publisher asked me to do a short interview to share with various media. The result seemed to me of sufficient interest to share also with readers of this blog.

Q: It has been over twenty years since your first book, The Tragedy of Zionism, which was quite controversial when it was published. After all these years, what compelled you to write THE HEBREW REPUBLIC? Do you expect the book to elicit the same heated response that you received with The Tragedy of Zionism?

BA: When my first book came out, a number of its admirers said it was ahead of its time. I have since learned, after many years in management consulting, that this was not exactly a compliment. When you are saying something new, you are naturally going to be criticized, but it’s important to find a way and time for new ideas to be heard.

The Tragedy of Zionism
focused on how Israel’s crisis grew, not only out of Arab enmity, but out of certain failures in its own democracy: that the settlement movement, for example, was not simply the result of post-1967 intoxication with the land, but that settlement was inspired and materially supported by residual Zionist institutions that should have been retired in 1948; that Israel’s state apparatus was only doing outside of the Green Line after the Six Day War what it had been doing inside the Green Line after the War of Independence.

I argued, in effect, that the State of Israel had been founded as two states: a democratic state encasing a revolutionary Zionist settler state, the former developing a Hebrew civil society, the latter privileging rabbinically defined Jews over non-Jews. This contradiction was systematically alienating Israel’s substantial Arab minority, while advancing the interests of Jewish orthodoxy. There could be no advance to peace, I concluded, if Israel did not get past the anachronistic Zionist theories and institutions that crimped the evolution of its democracy. These were very difficult things for people to hear in the 1980s. By now, a great many informed people take them for granted.

My new book THE HEBREW REPUBLIC, builds on and updates these arguments. The process of at once integrating and alienating Israeli Arabs is a generation more advanced. The same can be said of ways Orthodox Judaism has been established as a state religion. One quarter of Israeli first-graders are now Arab, and another quarter are rigidly orthodox, devoted to the idea of greater Israel. You don’t have to be a prophet to see where the children of Israel are heading.

But something important has changed in Israel since my first book, and this is the integration of the country’s elites into global markets and the culture of globalization more generally. More and more educated Israelis are coming to understand that you can’t have an economy like Singapore’s and a nationalities war like Serbia’s.

So my new book is in many ways a more hopeful book than my first, even though the dangers and the violence are much more extreme today than in 1985. Back then, the culture heroes were the West Bank settlers. Today, the culture heroes are global entrepreneurs. The people who have the growing political power, global vision, and inherent interest in bringing about the necessary reforms are at least identifiable.

Read the rest of the interview here.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

The Hebrew Republic

The Hebrew Republic will be published several weeks from now. I thought readers of this blog might like to peruse the opening pages.

You can order the book (at a pre-publication discount, apparently) here.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

He's Worried

Flying away from Israel for a few months—book tour this spring, then the usual summer in New Hampshire—I found myself at wheels-up doing what I have been doing instinctively for years, putting in my earbuds, and playing Mati Caspi. Distance from Israel, like distance from a friend, prompts an immediate feeling of loss. What you love sticks fast, what drives you to despair suddenly feels manageable, or at least merely human.

And what I love, not without a certain apprehension, is Israel’s popular Hebrew culture: skeptical, free, hybrid, smart. When people say “Jewish state” I think immediately about Caspi, or (and here I am betraying squareness, I know) the poetry of Leah Goldberg, or the drama at Jerusalem’s Khan Theater. The Salieri character in Amadeus had a musical knowledge that was just enough to fully appreciate how far he was from musical genius. My command of Hebrew culture is something like that, good enough to know how little I contribute to it, yet also enough to feel the great privilege of living to see it.

This is how it was meant to be. Ahad Haam, early Zionism’s preeminent voice, hoped for a place in which modern Jews—modern individuals all—could develop religious, literary, musical, entrepreneurial, etc., ideas in Hebrew; a place where Jews could compete with the confidence of nationals in a kind of cultural Olympics, taking what was fine about other cultures, while giving back to other countries what was worth keeping from classical Jewish life. He did not know the half of it.

Caspi's light rock would never have occurred to him. Neither would it have seemed possible that, one day, the achievement of Hebrew culture would be taken so much for granted that people who called themselves Zionist—of all people, Orthodox rabbis, and American Jewish bigshots—would want the Jewish state to mirror the theocratic townships he had so willfully escaped. But then, Caspi himself grasps the danger and turns it into his art. The flame of Hebrew enlightenment seems more extinguishable, and precious, from 20,000 feet. 

SO FLYING TO America I have Caspi in my ears—that haunting song, "A Place for Worry," with lyrics by Yonatan Gefen, which I have taken as the epigraph of The Hebrew Republic. The translation below is mine. But take a couple of minutes and listen to it here.

At the fringe of the sky, at the edge of the desert,
There’s a faraway place, full of wildflowers.

A small place—forlorn and deranged—

A small place for worry.

All-that-will-be is spoken of,
And all-that-has-happened is thought,

God sits there and observes, guarding all He has created.

“You are forbidden to pick the flowers of the garden—
You are forbidden to pick the flowers of the garden!”

And he's worried, awfully worried.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Repetition Compulsion

Anyone who has heard George Santayana’s aphorism is condemned to repeat it, perhaps, but what can you really learn from history while you’re still living it—when the only facts that stick are organized to keep you sane? Yoel Marcus, the dean of Haaretz columnists, decided to give Gideon Levy a history lesson this morning. His column, given his readers’ dread, was inarguably tonic.

Last week, Levy wrote a bitter column about Ehud Barak, appealing for a cease-fire with Hamas, arguing what most Israelis intuitively understand, that there is no military solution to Gaza’s rockets, and that the IDF’s targeted killings only strengthen Hamas across the West Bank:

If there's a lull in Qassams fired, then Barak does everything he can to ensure their renewal to justify the “large-scale op” in Gaza he intends to make. If Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas is desperately trying to push forward talks, Barak eliminates any chance of bolstering his support. If Hamas suggests a cease-fire, Barak responds: “We will witness harsh scenes in Gaza before a calm is reached.” If all's quiet on the northern front, then Israeli pyromania claims Hezbollah's Imad Mughniyah, according to allegations. The security establishment does as it pleases: Killing; destroying; barring; seizing funds; issuing orders to close stores and factories in the West Bank; allowing construction in West Bank settlements; utterly humiliating the Palestinian Authority. It is oblivious to negotiations, Israeli commitments or lofty talk of peace.

This was, no doubt, written in anger. If the latest IDF attack in Bethlehem were the first, not the thirtieth, time the IDF chose to break a cease-fire in order to go after those notionally planning to break a cease-fire, one could chalk it up to—how did the Winograd Commission put it?—poor communication “between the political and military echelons.” But as my friend Yoram Peri, the author of the award winning Generals in the Cabinet Room, has shown, the army brass increasingly makes “professional” decisions politicians dare not contradict. Barak, who wants to return to the prime minister’s chair, has begun to preside over operational decisions without even the pretense of consulting his colleagues.

Nevertheless, Levi’s anger was too much for Marcus, who seems more and more the national therapist--you know, the short-term kind, who doesn’t like to see you squirm. He’s put together what could be the single most reassuring version I have yet heard of the crisis Israelis face. Anyone who has ever been to lunch with an Israeli consul, or has been cut off by an Israeli driver, knows the shrug he means his readers to perfect:

Israel [Marcus writes] is not Switzerland… its defense minister is not a character from the opera dressed in a fancy uniform. [Critics like Levy are so na├»ve, Marcus implicitly soothes.] Israel remains a target for elimination. [They want to kill us, don't they?] Instead of living alongside a pint-size sliver of a state called Israel, the Palestinians preferred to fight for all or nothing. [The wars are all their fault.] Israel could have easily become a military dictatorship. But it retained its humanity and its democratic character. [But Jews are just too good.] Israel fell in love with the territories it captured in the Six-Day War. [I’m not saying we’re perfect.] Windows of goodwill opened that allowed the signing of peace accords. [But we’ve done everything we could for peace.] Yasser Arafat proudly drove into Gaza in a black limousine, waving to the cheering, hope-filled crowds. But instead of words of peace, the chairman's maiden speech was a war cry against Israel. [Too bad, our enemy is so corrupt and blood-thirsty.] Ehud Barak who presented Arafat and president Bill Clinton with a comprehensive agreement that included the option of dividing Jerusalem. Arafat turned white. [Still, we offered them everything and they came back with war.] Hamas, boosted by the rise of Islamic fundamentalism now spreading like a plague in this part of the world, by Iran's threats to destroy Israel and support of terror. [And because they didn’t miss their chance to miss this opportunity, we have violence, which is fomented and directed by Iran.] But Israel has not promised to end the war on terror in the West Bank, out of fear that Hamas is liable to gain control there, too. [We must kill their bad people before they get us.]

We have to stop now.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Virtual Reality - The Winner Is...

Just as I posted last night, and as if he were reading my mind, I got an email from my friend Sam Bahour in Ramallah, telling me that G.ho.st, the extraordinary software company that creates a virtual desktop for you anywhere you go (think of it as Vista and Office following you around like Gmail; Google's dream, in fact), has placed in Computerworld's top ten most innovated companies for 2007. Did I mention that G.ho.st is a joint venture of two development teams, one in Modiin, Israel and the other in Ramallah, Palestine? Dare we imagine what they'd achieve if their development meetings did not themselves have to be virtual? Oh, and did I mention that Sam, an American-Palestinian technology entrepreneur, whom Israel should wish there were a thousand of, is still fighting for a resident status that would allow him to stay in Ramallah with his family and yet travel to and from Palestine?

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Connect the Dots #5: Virtual Reality

Exhibit One. At the top of today’s Haaretz business page is the sale of Kidaro to Microsoft. The price is not disclosed, but it is obviously sweet enough to put a smile on the faces of 27 young people, two of whom are holding bottles of champagne. Insiders say this was a $100 million deal, a very enviable “exit.”

The company created the software needed to, in effect, allow computers to run two completely different operating systems at once, say, the business XP of the company network, and the household Vista, full of personal emails, photos, and what-not. Two different virtual realities can thus coexist on a single desktop—“an enterprise computer systems environment alongside his private environment,” says company founder Ron Kohavi.

Exhibit Two. Haaretz columnist Ari Shavit, a perennial contender for Churchill-of-the-year, explains why if John McCain does not make it to the White House “Israel is likely to be faced with a cruel decision at the end of the decade: to attack a nuclearizing Iran or accept a nuclear-capable Iran.”

He points out that Syria and Hezbollah are getting stronger and are both “incensed over the humiliating events of September 2007,” the unacknowledged attack on the unnamed site; that the Hamas leadership in Gaza has found the perfect weapon in the Qassam; that Mahmud Abbas is to be faulted for his weakness, which will bring an end to the Annapolis negotiations; and that the moderate regimes of the Arab world are “conducting a two-faced policy,” opposing Tehran and yet working to improve relations with it. Meanwhile, Israeli Arabs are waiting to join in the inevitable attack.

And what of blood, toil, tears, and sweat? The business press, Shavit says, has succeeded in “twisting the minds of the country's elite and making them think that the nouveau-riche wealth bubble is genuine.”

Exhibit Three. Another Haaretz columnist, the intrepid Amira Hass, who has actually lived in the Palestinian territories, is calling on the PA to adopt Gandhi’s tactics to resist settlements and closures. “There are hundreds of concrete barriers blocking exits to villages,” she writes; “The PA could send a bulldozer to remove one of them every day.” Building and development are banned in Area C. The Palestinian planning office could, she adds, “order the appropriate Palestinian ministries to put up electricity lines, to prepare the infrastructure to connect villages to the water carrier, to dig cisterns to collect rainwater, to build schools, clinics and houses.” What if Israel comes and destroys it all? “Then build it again.

Exhibits Four, Five, etc. A barrage of Qassams started falling again this morning after several days of quiet. Egyptian and PA negotiators have been trying to effect a general cease fire between Hamas and Israel; the barrage began immediately after the Israeli army assassinated four armed militants in Bethlehem—people allegedly planning further attacks on Israel. One of those killed, Ahmed Balboul, a senior figure in Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades (a militia affiliated with Abbas's Fatah) had told The New York Times last July that he was hoping to work out an amnesty deal for himself with the Israelis. “Our intentions are turned toward negotiation,” he said, having come to a meeting in Bethlehem’s Manger Square unarmed.

Meanwhile, Israel has resumed building a new Orthodox settlement between Jerusalem and Ramallah, for which Shas—Olmert’s ultraOrthodox partner, which opposes all negotiations over Jerusalem—takes credit. Ehud Barak is promising that Israel will “continue to hunt and target every killer who has Jewish blood on his hands.” Defense Ministry people are saying Hamas will not soften its demands until it suffers “severe blows.”

Question One. How long can Churchill’s and Gandhi’s realities coexist in virtually the same political environment?

Question Two. Whose reality is more virtual: Israeli entrepreneurs who have learned to build software for every computer in the world, or Israeli officers who imagine that they are preventing fatal violence by breaking a cease-fire in order to assassinate more “terrorists”?

Question Three. Again, whose reality is more virtual: a writer who, for once, calls for creating the facts of peace in advance of peace, or a writer who, again, exhorts all to prepare for war in advance of war.

Essay Question. Churchill correctly said after Munich that his leaders had faced a choice between shame and war—that they chose shame then, and would get war later. Is it possible (for Shas, say, or Ehud Barak come to think about it,) to choose war now and get shame later?

Extra Credit. If things keep going this way, will not Kidaro’s employees discover a whole new meaning for the word “exit”?

Sunday, March 9, 2008

Jabel Mukhaber

Thursday night, just at the news hour, a young gunman attacked Yeshivat Mercaz Harav. He entered the library and opened fire on teenage boys studying Talmud, for God’s sake. The toll, if that’s the word for it (or as if that’s the end of it), was eight dead and as many seriously injured.

My wife Sidra and I watched, glued to the screen: ambulances flashing, their benches filling with bloodied youths, then driving off—actually, one ambulance and one youth, for the images played in a continuous loop, the way TV newsrooms provide the illusion of real time reporting these days; so we watched, again and again, the peculiar gait and luminous orange vest of one emergency worker, as he rushed to catch up to the same stretcher, walking the same twenty yards, over and over, while the voices of reporters speculated about numbers of terrorists, numbers of dead, numbers of minutes and bullets it took to kill the terrorist—an urgent chatter delivered with the slightly melodramatic tone of fetching young news anchors who, you sense, believed such misfortune must be convincingly felt, but who do not really believe it could ever really happen to stars such as themselves.

FINALLY, SOME FACTS came in. There was one gunman, not two. There was no longer an imminent threat of collateral attacks in Jerusalem. The gunman had not worn an exploding vest. He had come, not from Gaza or Nablus, but from Jabel Mukhaber in East Jerusalem—a “citizen of Israel,” the anchor said laconically.

Sidra and I could only look at one another, the words Jabel Mukhaber numbing us like Novocain. For we had been to the town several times during the past few years, as part of a citizens’ group supporting its residents’ petition to change the route of the security wall—a wall now cutting through the town, pinching off and isolating one of its neighborhoods, Sheik Sa’ad.

We have been hosted by Jabel Mukhaber’s families and community leaders, who had warmly fed us and expressed their gratitude. We had collected signatures, neighbors for neighbors, on Emeq Refaim, the main commercial street near our home, perhaps a seven minute drive from Jabel Mukhaber. Just a month ago, we had been at a session of Israel’s High Court, as the lawyer for the town, Giath Nasir, had presented the case against the route of the fence once again. (My rather fuzzy pictures from the court are what you see here.)

In January 2005, moreover, I wrote about the town in Harper’s:

While [Ariel] Sharon is being depicted by the zealots he once coddled as caving in to Palestinians, the route of his fence is already responsible for the migration of thousands of them. It is creating Palestinian enclaves separated from Jerusalem and from one another—enclaves surrounded by Jewish settlements that are linked by exclusive highways and bypass roads. It leaves hinterland towns separated from metropolitan centers, a rupture that denies any Palestinian business the prospect of viability. About two miles from my home is the neighborhood of Jabel Mukhaber. The fence is cutting it off from its sister village, Sheik Sa'ad, whose 2,000 residents are themselves cut off from the rest of the West Bank by steep cliffs. They are in danger of being “strangled.” One leader of Jabel Mukhaber told me that a third of those people—their own family members—have left, while the remaining villagers are living off the gifts of family abroad.


FOR THE RECORD, the residents of Jabel Mukhaber, as residents of East Jerusalem, living inside the wall, are not citizens of Israel. They hold blue identity cards, which the Israeli TV anchors casually assumed Palestinians covet, and which supposedly made them Israeli by some kind of historical inertia. These Palestinians do have certain privileges: the residents of Jabel Mukhaber (though not, ironically, the residents of Sheik Sa’ad, which the wall is supposed to impede, and from which the murderer did not come) have unrestricted access to Israel.

East Jerusalem residents
qualify for social security, health care, and so forth, so most neighboring Palestinians do covet the blue card, which hardly makes them Israelis or grateful to Israel. They also inhabit a kind of legal twilight zone. They may vote in municipal elections, which most boycott. They feel trapped. Jabel Mukhaber is a scar on the map, a world away from adjoining Talpiot, and mostly neglected by the Jerusalem municipality, whose area Israel’s government haphazardly quadrupled after 1967.

What I remember most about the time I spent in the town was one conversation I had with an older man, who told me sadly that much of his family has abandoned it, but also told me with pride that one son, in his early 20s, was now studying in New York. A picture stood behind him; the young man was formally posed, but was wearing, oddly, an Islanders hockey sweater. The murderer, Alaa Abu Dheim, was himself barely 20 years old, and had been arrested by Israeli authorities four months ago, then released two months later. He had been a driver for Mercaz Harav. He had become, in his way, “very religious” and had not been sleeping, his family said. His family hung out Hamas flags yesterday, as a sign of mourning, which the police immediately took down.

ALAA ABU DHEIM’S act was sociopathic. That is obvious enough. Directed, or even just rationalized, by Hamas leaders, it was a crime against humanity—I mean the humanity of this benighted young man, as well as that of the young students he killed. Nothing Hamas has said—that Mercaz Harav is a center of settler ideology, that the Israeli army had killed civilians in going after missile launchers in Gaza the week before—can justify, or even explain, really, how a young man throws away his life in an ecstasy of violence, murdering people he might well have driven around in recent months.

It brings to mind, in a kind of horrible symmetry, the influence of settler leaders on a depressed, fanatic youth by the name of Eden Natan-Zada who—during the week before the Gaza disengagement, having drawn close to followers of the late Rabbi Meir Kahane on the settlement of Tapuach—boarded a bus in the Israeli Arab town of Shfaram and opened fire with an automatic rifle, killing four people, and injuring twelve, before he was himself beaten to death by the mob that surrounded the bus. The founders of Tapuach and the current bosses of Gaza are true brothers.

And I confess to feeling remorseful that I supported Giath Nasir’s claim that Jabel Mukhaber’s residents, having never participated in violence, did not constitute a security threat. For I never really believed an attack like this was impossible, nor could any seasoned observer be surprised by it. It was Jabel Mukhaber I was thinking of when I wrote in Slate in 2004 that the conditions of young people in East Jerusalem were a kind of Miracle-Gro for random sociopathic behavior, that Israel's security fence would eventually encourage more atrocities than it foils.

Some imagine the wall a hedge against peace talks failing—or, indeed, an alternative to negotiating seriously at all. It is actually trapping over 250,000 Arab residents of Jerusalem in a nether world they will not accept. “The problem with the government's logic,” I quoted Middle East scholar Menachem Klein, “is that entrapped Palestinians will fight—they have nowhere to go.”

And now we know what fighting means: that one (then two, then three) in a hundred young men will spurn the New York Islanders and seek, instead, an ecstatic death. Friday morning my barber told me—vindicated, he thought—that the attack only proves what is wrong with the ninety-nine who did not attack. “They teach their children to kill us from birth,” he said. This morning Benjamin Netanyahu told Israeli radio that the attack proves Israel has nobody to deal with, that where the IDF vacates, Hamas will come, and talk of peace really means missiles from the West Bank.

And what of Israeli Arabs, if things continue in this way?, he was asked. Netanyahu continued answering in a confident tone, and I can't for the life of me remember what he said.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Type J (positive)

My friend Gershom Gorenberg wrote a smart piece for the New York Times Sunday Magazine last week-end, detailing (in part) the difficulties of a young Israeli woman, born on a kibbutz, trying to prove that she was, indeed, a Jew to the satisfaction of Israel’s Rabbinic courts. Where once the Rabbis focused on Jewish conversion, now they are questioning Jewish birth: the piece has been at the top of the Times’ “most emailed” for the past few days, as it deserves to be, given its quality and the paper’s large number of readers who are identified Jews, presumptively Jews, arguably Jews, married to Jews, or just interested in the Jewish state’s legal apparatus, about which more in a moment.

Gershom could not cover everything. He finally showed how Israel’s Rabbinic courts were bound to alienate the majority of American Jews affiliated with the Reform movement or other non-Orthodox congregations. But as he subsequently emailed me, this is obviously a “human-rights” question, and not only an internal fight between trends in Jewish religious life. Which brings me back to Israeli law.

FROM ITS INCEPTION, the Israeli state apparatus recognized, in effect, two categories of personal status: ezrahut, most commonly understood as “citizenship,” and le’om, which means “nationality” or “peoplehood.” Virtually all residents of Mandate Palestine who remained within Israel’s international boundary at the end of 1948–49 war, including the 180,000 Arabs, qualified for citizenship. They enjoyed equality in the new civil society, including the right to vote.

But people legally designated yehudi, “Jewish nationals”—people with Jewish origins, whether coming from Mandate Palestine or the Diaspora—had other material privileges, accorded by the core Zionist apparatus: residence rights in Jewish settlements owned by the Jewish National Fund, subsidized mortgages, and so forth. As Gershom notes, Israel has no civil marriage, so being Jewish is also essential if you wish to marry a Jew.

Or be buried next to a loved one who is Jewish, or handle wine and still have it be kosher (not a small matter for Israel’s crucial tourist and restaurant industry), or go to state supported schools meant for “religious” Jews. All of these privileges—and many more—create a state supported Rabbinic monopoly, and tens of thousands ward-of-the-state jobs for people close to Orthodox parties.

Finally, to qualify for immediate citizenship under the Law of Return (the real focus of the NYT's piece, given that the woman in question is the daughter of an American Jewish immigrant), you must be the “child or grandchild of a Jew, the spouse of a Jew, the spouse of a child of a Jew or the spouse of a grandchild of a Jew.” This was not the standard of traditional Halakha, which deemed a Jew to be anyone born of a Jewish mother, but the new state—so it was thought—should accord Israeli citizenship to anybody who would have died as a Jew during the Second World War. (In fact, the Law of Return’s standard mirrors the 1935 Nazi Nuremberg Laws.) Then came a series of High Court decisions (and Knesset overturnings of High Court decisions) which determined that a Jewish national cannot be a Christian, and also that Jewish nationality cannot be, in effect, Israeli nationality—that is, acquired in the way almost all democratic countries naturalize citizens, through language and civic action.

SO IF YOU are born in Israel to a Jewish mother, then you are a Jewish national and a citizen. You can also get immediate Israeli citizenship, under the Law of Return, if you are an immigrant who has not renounced the Jewish faith and are descended from at least one Jewish grandparent—a grandparent, that is, who was born to a Jewish mother who had not renounced her faith. But if you are such an immigrant, and only your father is Jewish, you are not automatically a Jewish national. To become one, you must undergo a sincere conversion. The same with people who are born in Israel to a Jewish father only. They are citizens—but can only become Jewish nationals by sincerely converting to Judaism. (Sincerity is a matter decided by Orthodox Rabbinic courts.) A non-Jew can also become a Jewish national by converting, like the child born in Israel to a non-Jewish mother, but unlike that child, cannot be a citizen without converting. An Arab Muslim can never become a Jewish national and, if born outside the country, can forget about becoming a citizen. Then again, the interior minister can just make you a citizen. Clear?

I hasten to add that getting the state to recognize non-Orthodox forms of conversion to Judaism is of no help here. Many Israeli liberals claimed a victory in 2002 when the High Court ruled that conversions to Judaism performed by Reform movement rabbis must be recognized by the Ministry of Interior. (The decision, which is often ignored, was meant to smooth the way to Jewish nationality for Russian immigrants, whose children serve in the army but who generally detest the Orthodox rabbinate.) In March 2005, the court also ruled that people already residing in Israel who go overseas for a final Reform conversion ceremony must also be recognized as Jews.

But the question, surely, is not whether the Reform movement should have the right to declare a Jewish convert qualified for state privileges. Recognition of Reform authority may do something for pluralism within Jewish religious life but nothing for constitutional pluralism within Israeli democracy. The question is how to square privileges for Jews with the equality presumed by democratic law. The High Court’s decisions only made a discriminatory standard somewhat more inclusive. It did nothing to integrate Israeli Arabs, or for that matter, the Filipinas who tend to Jewish grandparents, or the Thais who build Jewish housing.

Given Jewish history, it would be tactless to call such laws racist. So let us just say that they privilege citizens based on fine distinctions regarding accidents of birth.

Sunday, March 2, 2008

Connect the Dots #4: Forget Cunning

One. Virtually every morning these days, I have been waking to a gentle commercial on Israel’s main radio station, Reshet Bet. First, an ingenuous voice speaks the most famous fragment of Psalm 137, “If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning.” Then another, more cheerful voice—the kind that sells stoves—comes on, assuring us that, at the most intimate moments of our lives, Jews have always invoked the yearning for Jerusalem—at which point we realize that the first voice was a groom taking wedding vows.

The second voice then introduces itself as that of Nir Barkat, who explains that we need to protect Jerusalem, keep it “thriving and united”—which we will no doubt do if we go to the website of a new cross-party political organization, One Jerusalem. The larger point Barkat is making—hardly challenged these days—is that the legitimacy of the Zionist project rests with the Jews’ two thousand year old yearning for Jerusalem; that this yearning confers on Jews an “historical right” to the city, and so any move to negotiate shared sovereignty should be defeated. (Among the site’s sponsors: Benjamin Netanyahu, Natan Sharansky, former Chief of Staff “Boogie” Yaalon, and others.)

By the way, Barkat is also a well-known technology entrepreneur and VC who ran for mayor of Jerusalem a few years back, and now serves as, in effect, leader of the opposition in the city council. He helped launch Israel’s legendary firewall company, Check Point. He is one of the founding members of the Israel Venture Network (IVN), established in 2001 by a group of American and Israeli high tech businesspeople, committed to creating “a pluralistic business environment” in Israel, by “encouraging innovative and venture-based strategies.”

Two. My wife, Hebrew University literary critic Sidra DeKoven Ezrahi, points out that the final verses of Psalm 137 are usually forgotten. The entire King James translation reads as follows (notice particularly the last line):

By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion. We hanged our harps upon the willows in the midst thereof. For there they that carried us away captive required of us a song; [1] and they that wasted us required of us mirth, saying, Sing us one of the songs of Zion. How shall we sing the Lord's song in a strange [2] land? If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning. If I do not remember thee, let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth; if I prefer not Jerusalem above my chief [3] joy. Remember, O Lord, the children of Edom in the day of Jerusalem; who said, Rase it, rase it, even to the foundation thereof. O daughter of Babylon, who art to be destroyed; [4] happy shall he be, that rewardeth thee as thou hast served us. Happy shall he be, that taketh and dasheth thy little ones against the stones.

Three. In 1998, the CEO of Check Point, Gil Shweid, told me (when I interviewed him for Fortune Magazine), “Seventy years ago the people who created the socialist-Zionist economy, the kibbutzim, the planned cities—they built the State of Israel. I hope that high tech today can do similar things; it is important for this country that businesses like these emerge.Is peace essential, I asked? He replied:

In the short-run, nobody is going to cancel a distribution agreement with Check Point because of a terrorist attack; our customers and stock-holders assume a peace process is evolving. But in the long run, if the peace momentum will go away, we will lose our edge in attracting customers and top-flight management to Israel…[T]he economy will go downhill and the impact will be measurable.

Four. Israel’s great poet, Yehuda Amichai, wrote a poem entitled, “If I Forget Thee, Jerusalem.” The opening stanzas go like this.

If I forget thee, Jerusalem,
Then let my right be forgotten.
Let my right be forgotten, and my left remember.
Let my left remember, and your right close
And your mouth open near the gate.

I shall remember Jerusalem
And forget the forest—my love will remember,
Will open her gate, will close my window,
will forget my right,
Will forget my left.

***

Question One. If Israelis’ political rights in Jerusalem derive, not from the consent of the governed, but from the Jews’ historic longing to enact the dreams of an iron age psalmist, can our happiness be complete if we have not yet smashed our enemies’ babes against Jerusalem stone? (Is this ode to memory and vengeance really what we need to make sense of missiles from Gaza?)

Question Two. How many companies like Check Point could get launched today if people outside of Israel, or young Israeli entrepreneurs, for that matter, believed that partnerships in globalization must be sacrificed to the violence that Barkat’s bizarre dogmatism must inevitably sustain?

Question Three. What was the real purpose of our coming here, to realize the vision of Psalm 137 or to engender poets who could riff on Psalm 137—as Sidra puts it, to love Jerusalem or love in Jerusalem?

Extra credit: If I’ve really, really wanted Barkat’s Check Point stock since 1998, does this give me an “historical right” to it?